Lamplight – a kind of love letter

M. Amelia Eikli

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What do you think of when I say ‘Florence Nightingale’?

I think many of us have a mental image of her walking around with her lamp, stepping carefully between wounded soldiers to check that her patients are doing all right. She’s the avatar of the very idea of a nurse. The Nurse, who, with her trained eye, looks for changes in breathing or bleeding or colouring. In a sea of patients, there’s the lady with the lamp.

We know about the work Florence Nightingale did to improve sanitation in field hospitals, and how many lives were saved by her focus on hygiene and care. We don’t talk as much about how she and the other nurses helped the soldiers write letters home, but they did that, too.

A little while ago, I had to have surgery. I’m healing well, and I’m now fine, but the morning of my operation, I wasn’t fine at all. Instead, I had a visit from an old friend I haven’t heard from in a long time – Panic.

Panic and I used to be close. Throughout my teenage years and early twenties, he’d randomly jump out of the bushes and force me to my knees.

“You’re about to die!!” he’d yell. Or, “You’re about to lose everything!” He’d shove my usual companion, general anxiety, aside, throw me to the ground, and cover my body as if expecting a rain of shrapnel. I assume he meant well. He wanted to keep me safe; he just had a terrible understanding of what was and wasn’t dangerous.

I’m a different person now. Even my general anxiety has learned to take a back seat to mellow acceptance, mindfulness, steady breathing and gratitude. Panic hasn’t visited since 2014. If I’ve seen him approach, I’ve simply waved and said, “No thank you!” then been on my merry way. Imagine my surprise then, when – walking down the hospital corridor to check in for my operation – I suddenly felt his clammy hands on my shoulders.

I knew it was him. He was as familiar to me as my own mirror image. But as I’ve changed, he’s changed too, and this time, he couldn’t get a solid grip. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. The staff at the hospital were amazing. They did what they could to help me: they let my wife come in and wait with me, they joked and smiled and spoke to me calmly. As I paced around in circles, they complimented my breathing technique, which helped me feel more in control.

But Panic kept trying to crawl up my back. He came close enough to whisper into my ear that if I wanted to, I could just leave. Close enough that my arms and legs grew cold, my pupils grew large, and my body shook with adrenaline. Despite my careful breathing, I was never more than a loud noise away from choosing ‘flight’.

Just to be clear, I wasn’t actually scared of the operation. I had all the information I needed; I felt confident and calm going in, and I’d been sleeping fine up until the day before. But now, with panic grappling for a hold, my whole body suddenly felt in mortal danger. I physically felt like I would die if I didn’t leave the hospital right then. In my head, I couldn’t stop imagining my wife getting the news, or her having to call my parents to tell them. I couldn’t stop thinking about her all alone in our flat.

Being that scared is a lot. I was exhausted, but I also felt stupid, embarrassed and silly.

I told you all the staff were amazing, and I mean that. Everyone I spoke to – the nurses, the anaesthetist, the surgeon – was absolutely lovely. They saw me – a very anxious patient – and they treated me kindly and patiently.

I said this was sort of a love letter. And to make things a little confusing, it’s a love letter to a woman called Nika. Now, Nika is not my wife Nica – it’s just a coincidence that they’re called the same thing. Nika is a nurse who worked at St. Michaels that afternoon. She was the one who came to tell me it was time to get ready, and the one who came to take me to the operating theatre.

There is a room you enter before your operation, where a bunch of people ask you questions they’ve asked you several times before, and make sure they’re all there for the same reason. Nurse Nika walked me in there, then waited with me for things to be ready. The anaesthetists and surgical nurses tried to comfort me while we were waiting.

“I’m honestly looking forward to you knocking me out, so I can have a break from this,” I said, and tried to smile. I’d been panicking for about four, maybe five, hours, and I was exhausted. They all smiled sympathetically.

“My only goal is to not run away,” I said, because my entire mouth was full of the words, “I don’t want to do this,” and I just needed to clear it out.

“Well, if that’s the case,” said Nika, “you’re doing amazingly well!”

“Take your robe off and come into the theatre,” someone said a while later. This is where I knew I was about to lose the battle. I was surrounded by people, and under my robe was the hospital gown – you know, that uncomfortable thing that’s open in the back. Now, I’m quite at peace with my body being what it is, but at the best of times, I’d struggle to be chill about exposing it to a room full of strangers. And this was not the best of times.

Panic suddenly got hold of my hair and swung himself onto my shoulders. My chest tightened, my mouth went dry, and I felt myself twitching towards the door.

I don’t know what happened. Perhaps Nika stopped seeing me as an anxious patient, and spotted me: a regular person doing her best in a really shitty situation. Or perhaps she’s just great at her job. But in a room full of people who were now officially in charge of me, she decided to be my champion.

She said to the others: “I’ll come in there with you and I’ll bring her robe back out with me. Then she doesn’t have to feel quite so exposed yet.” She grabbed Panic by the skin of his neck and threw him to the floor.

“I’ll stand here and hold your hand,” she said, as I lay on the table, and the anaesthetist struggled to find a vein. She stood there when he needed to use an ultrasound machine, when he had to try on both arms, then a second time, then had to get his boss involved.

The whole time, Nika spoke to me. I don’t know how long this lasted, but judging by the number of topics I remember, it must have been a while. She told me playing the Jurassic Park game at the arcades. About how confusing the image on the ultrasound machine was. She asked about my book, about what changes I’d had to make to it after the pandemic, about being a ghostwriter, and about my doomsday prepping.

All the while, people were getting me ready for the operation, and Nika jumped and dodged and scurried out of their way. She joked that being able to do so was one of the benefits of being short.

She laughed at my jokes and she swatted away Panic’s hands whenever she spotted them. She complimented my breathing technique, talked about how audiobooks made her sleepy, and when she could no longer hold my hand, she touched my arm instead. She didn’t leave until she was told to. But by then, I had stopped crying and I could breathe freely. By then, I was ready to be put under.

There is a world of difference in going under while able to fully breathe and not crying, versus going under while dissolved in tears and with your breath catching. I’ve tried both. I know which one I’d recommend.

I’ve thought about Nika a lot since the operation. Every time I do, it makes me tear up. As well as everything went, my body still remembers that morning as a traumatic event, and holds the feeling of mortal danger like a bruise. What would it have been like if Nika wasn’t there?

Now, I want you to bring up that image of Florence Nightingale for a minute, but from a different perspective. Plop yourself into one of those beds, in the darkness, fresh from the battlefield, in pain and discomfort. You are scared and worried and alone. And there – through the dark tent – you see a light.

You don’t know what the nurse will do when she reaches you – perhaps, as she passes, she will smile and tell you to go back to sleep. Perhaps she’ll sternly tell you to close your eyes and get some rest. Perhaps she’ll nod and whisper a joke. But you don’t really mind, because either way, she’ll see you. If something is wrong, she’ll notice. This brings comfort. This feels safe. The night still feels endless and lonely, but at least you know you’ll be seen.

But then, when the nurse arrives by your bedside, she stops and says, “How are you feeling?” And, because it is true, you tell her that you’re fine, but you’re a little scared. The nurse smiles and she asks you to tell her about who is waiting back home for you. And as you tell her about the lovely Clara (who’s promised to wait for you) and about your parents, who have bought a new cow, and about our Bella, who’s only five, but already the funniest person you’ve ever met, the darkness pulls back and you feel calmer, even drowsy. By the time the lamplight moves on, you’re already drifting off to sleep.

I had some amazing nurses and nursing assistants at the hospital. I don’t remember all their names, but Izzy, Eva and Savannah spring to mind. They made me feel safe and seen, and I’m grateful to them for that. But the one I hope will have nothing but good days – who I hope will never find limp lettuce in her sandwich, and never step on a LEGO – is Nika. She looked past the patient and spotted the person. She spotted the claws of Panic and sensed the topics that made him lose his grip. She taught me something important.

It’s not really about the lamplight, it’s about what we look for in it.
It’s not really about the lamplight, it’s about the hand that carries it.

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